The LA Galaxy are struggling at the start of the season despite many pundits’ predictions of greatness. The massive stars of the Galaxy midfield tend to pull the game centrally. The rest of the field, like your average galaxy, has a bit too much empty and unused space.
The Seattle Sounders, meanwhile, are back flying high after exorcising some demons of recent road form at Sporting Kansas City. While the Sounders crave possession in order to control the game, the only team that gets more touches on the ball per match is the Galaxy. Let’s look at how these two ball-hungry sides are performing, and how the Sounders might win a second straight Western Conference road contest.
Sussing Out Seattle
The Sounders took the field against SKC with quite a few personnel changes, but a very familiar approach:
If this shape looks familiar, that’s because the Sounders used largely the same shape in possession against SKC that they have used since the Club World Cup. Kelyn Rowe played rather conservatively in Nouhou’s left back role, often joining a back three to start possessions, while Cristian Roldan played higher up the pitch in his brother’s usual fullback role.
Nicolás Lodeiro was the “false wingback” behind Léo Chú on the left touch line. Nico was almost exclusively left-sided with his touches in this game in order to overload the left with Chú and Jordan Morris. That combination continued to befuddle KC right back Graham Zusi as Seattle’s possession flowed down their left side.
Morris was remarkably effective in supporting the midfield with his back to goal and making runs to create space:
His scoring instincts have always been a strength, but this match showed how the breadth of his skills in front of goal has grown. He scored a direct goal using his pace to get by defenders. He toed the offside line and scored off a tight interchange with Chú. He drifted off the back shoulder of defenders and punished them twice at the far post, including a textbook header. This looks like it will be a massive year for Morris.
The Shape of the Galaxy
LA’s initial shape in possession is not too dissimilar to Seattle’s. Right back and former Sounder Kelvin Leerdam stays home to form a back three behind midfielder Gastón Brugman, while left back Raheem Edwards takes a position wide of the midfield, supported by attacker Riqui Puig dropping deep on the wing:
Once the ball progresses to the final third, LA pushes both fullbacks up and tries to dominate their opponent with possession. In defense, the fullbacks return to a back four.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Paul Harvey at American Soccer Analysis posted a great visualization on Twitter showing how teams are performing in different zones of the field so far this season. Drawing from the goals added metric, the brighter the color of each zone, the better the team is at creating danger in that area relative to historic league data.
Where each MLS team is relatively strong with the ball and against the ball in 2023: pic.twitter.com/gECIrorXtP— Paul Harvey (@Thundering165) March 29, 2023
Examining the attacking zones for the Sounders and Galaxy gives some insight into where they have found success so far in 2023. For the Sounders, their left wing has been a major strength in the attack. The tactical shift to get Lodeiro wide left supporting Morris (and Chú) is working about as well as one could hope. That is quite a turnaround from the latter half of 2022, when opposing defenses were happy to shut down the Sounders’ right side and dare Nouhou and Morris to do something productive down the left wing.
For the Galaxy, two issues stand out. First, their wing play has been disappointing. None of their healthy wingers and fullbacks take advantage of wide areas in the final third or work the ball to the end line for cutback passes. Instead, they rely on short passing through the crowded vertical lanes between the wing and the middle — the half spaces:
While these patterns of play have resulted in a few pretty passing combinations, LA has only scored twice in four matches.
A second issue for the Galaxy is their lack of danger in the central areas of the final third — zones meant for star players Riqui Puig and Chicharito. Chicharito is still out injured, and striker Dejan Joveljić has not been able to create enough danger with Puig in the middle as opposing defenses pack numbers at the top of the box.
What the Galaxy are left with is a team that holds and progresses the ball more than any other, but relies too much on dynamism in a couple of crowded areas to create goals. Teams will tolerate Galaxy central midfielder Gastón Brugman leading the league in passing volume as long as they can neutralize Puig and Joveljić once the ball reaches the final third.
Keys To Victory Against the Galaxy
Clog the Top of the Box
The play of João Paulo, Yeimar, Jackson Ragen, and the supporting defensive cast in the middle of the field will be key in this match. The Sounders must frustrate LA in those half spaces and disrupt Puig and Brugman as they attempt passing combinations like this one:
Swarm Puig in the Final Third
The best strategy to avoid being burned by Riqui Puig is to collapse the defense on him when he receives the ball and force him to find space farther from goal:
Dominate the Wings
As we have already seen, LA’s shape tends to get a bit narrow when they settle into the attack. Despite being ineffective in wide areas, LA still bring their fullbacks high up the field into their opponent’s half. In this sequence, FC Dallas steal the ball off Riqui Puig in the middle while fullback Kelvin Leerdam is pushing up field:
The Galaxy were saved by the offside flag on this play, but better execution would punish a Galaxy team that gets too comfortable with the ball. This match sets up well for Morris, Chú, and the Roldan brothers to run rampant in wide areas and give Raúl Ruidíaz some big chances facing goal.
Absorb Early Pressure
Winless and facing a Western Conference rival at home, LA will certainly be playing like they are desperate. Much like Sporting KC last weekend, LA will try to land a punch early on against the Sounders, who still have not shaken the habit of slow starts on the road. This is an opportunity to show that the team has learned its lesson by coming out ready for a high-tempo match from Minute 1.
This LA Galaxy side has more talent than their winless record indicates. Despite an embarrassment of riches in the middle of the field, goals have been hard to come by. For the Sounders, this match is a golden opportunity to take three points from a conference rival before they find their feet in 2023.
Note: all statistics from FBRef.com